The True Meaning of Ju in Judo and Jujutsu 

Andrew Yiannakis, Ph.D
Linda Yiannakis, M.S.


The term "ju" in judo and jujutsu has several meanings and they reflect both the intent and context in which the term is used. We can list of course many literal meanings for ju such as gentleness, pliability, softness, yielding, adaptability, and so on, but to get at the true heart of how it applies to both jujutsu and judo we must read or interpret both context and intent as it applies in the martial arts. The intent in judo and jujutsu is NOT to execute technique gently or softly but with determination, true spirit, maximum effectiveness and, of course, minimum effort. Thus, a good jujutsuka or judoka executes technique with fluidity, timing and control and to the untrained eye this may look like gentleness. However, to uke it feels like hell! But there is more.

It is important to mention at the outset that ju possesses both offensive and defensive dimensions. Ju does not simply mean "yielding and redirecting.

If that were the case jujutsuka or judoka would only be able to apply their skills after they are attacked. Ju as applied in judo and jujutsu also has an offensive component.

In offensive applications, for example, tori initiates the attack by kicking, striking or using combinations. Ju in such contexts speaks to the ability to demonstrate the necessary amount of physical pliability (e.g., fighting relaxed and loose) and, even more importantly, psychological and strategic flexibility. The second dimension of ju, which speaks to judo or jujutsu's defensive applications, is about "yielding and redirecting".

A classic example in Japanese martial art history of the adoption of ju as a guiding principle in jujutsu comes to us from the story of Akiyama Yoshitoki. Akiyama gained his insight into ju when he noticed how the branches of a willow tree bent under the weight of snow and were able to
let the snow slide off and spring back without breaking. He named his jujutsu style Yoshin Ryu (Willow Spirit School) after grasping the implications of his observation (Skoss, 1997). Yoshin Ryu later became one of the root arts of judo through Tenjin Shinyo Ryu.

Other classical bujutsu schools utilized the saying, "When the enemy comes, welcome him; when he goes, send him on his way", a reference to the idea of flexibility in the concept of ju. (Draeger, 1997)

Ju has several layers of meaning and many Westerners are only exposed to the surface features associated with ju. Thus we practice our martial art thinking that ju simply translates into "gentleness" or "yielding" to an attack as though this is the only combat response that we use in jujutsu or judo. Let's not forget that we also initiate attacks.

This meaning (gentleness or yielding), however, is only one in a complex and multi-layered system of meanings. In some ways the layers of meaning associated with ju are like the terms "ura" and "omote" in kata. Ura refers to the inverting; the underside; the aspects of technique and strategy which are hidden from immediate view, while omote is the public or demonstration version. However, the omote version only serves to display surface features and principles but not the complete combat applications. The term ju is analogous to this distinction but has even more layers of meaning associated with it. Many Westerners are rarely exposed to the "ura" aspects of their system, or to the multiple layers of ju in their judo or jujutsu.

A central feature of the defensive dimension of ju involves more than just yielding. It also involves redirecting the force applied against you. This entails preventing the force of the opponent from reaching you, and while maintaining your own stability, turning his momentum or force back against him to deter or defeat him. Success in this application of ju requires the use of strong centered action with power generated from the hara, the understanding of rhythm and alignment with your opponent’s movements, and the perception of the transitions from one movement to the next made by the opponent.

A classic reference to ju in martial arts is "Ju yoku go o sei suru" – loosely translated as "Softness controls hardness." Jigoro Kano reportedly interpreted the meaning of this expression from the Tao Te Ching which says "Reversing is the movement of the Tao." He saw in this a natural law in which the act of yielding can be made with strength. Thus yielding does not imply weakness. (Draeger, 1997)

The idea of mind-body coordination is also implicit in ju. Ju carries the expectation that through diligent training, the body becomes "soft" or pliant to the mind. The body will be able to do what the mind envisions. This was an important concept in several jujutsu systems, including Tenjin Shinyo Ryu. Students in the early years of martial arts training often experience bafflement and frustration because they know what they are expected to do but cannot make their bodies cooperate. The unity of mind and body requires pliancy of both through long term practice.

As with many principles in Japanese martial arts, ju finds expression in the personal-social arena. We may see uses of ju in debate or discussion, for example, when an opponent seeks to attack or impose his view on you, and you deflect or turn that attack back against him. Ju is also applicable in verbally volatile instances where leading the participants to common ground (alignment) may serve to defuse the situation. It may also be seen when a speaker employs psychological and strategic flexibility by taking the initiative and attacking the opponent in ways that confuse and place him, or her, on the defensive.

Ju also has philosophical aspects which are beyond the scope of this paper to address.

Ju as it applies to judo and jujutsu has FOUR key dimensions:

(i) The first dimension speaks to the notion of Psychological Flexibility; that is, the ability to perceive and read a situation quickly, without preconceived notions, and be able to switch mental plans of action without preplanning or conscious effort. Being able to think fast on your feet, and switch quickly and effectively from one technique or strategy to another is, therefore, a key component of psychological flexibility. However, having psychological flexibility does not necessarily mean that one can act on it. Of necessity, students must train diligently under conditions that compel them to both think (psychological flexibility) and act quickly (strategic application of techniques).

(ii) The second dimension of ju speaks to Strategic Flexibility in combative situations (or contest). Strategic initiatives require a high degree of psychological flexibility and adaptability if a jujutsuka/judoka is to respond/act quickly, appropriately and efficiently in a fast-changing combative situation. Examples of strategic initiatives include initiating attack (Sen), evasion, joining, countering,, luring an opponent to attack (Sen Sen No Sen), and the like.

(iii) The third dimension speaks to the way a technique is executed when effective kuzushi is applied, especially when an attacker is taken through to the teetering point (rikiten) before being thrown, or immobilized. Let's call this Technique Efficiency. When a technique is executed with good kuzushi, timing, fluency and control it does appear to the untrained eye that this is indeed the way of gentleness because the action requires minimal strength and certainly NO brute force. This is maximum efficiency with minimum effort (the efficient use of energy), as Jigoro Kano would have it. There is no question, therefore, that when an assailant, or opponent, is effectively off-balanced to the teetering point it takes little effort to throw, or neutralize them with a strike or kick. This is technique efficiency that utilizes the principle of ju.

(iv) The fourth dimension of ju speaks to the notion of Physical Pliability

Dr. Sachio Ashida (sensei to the senior author) would always remind us that if we played judo stiffly and rigidly, relying on muscle to defend or execute technique, it made us less efficient, it often served to telegraph our technique, and after a couple of minutes of action we'd be exhausted. He constantly advised us instead to learn to play relaxed, to move with good fluency and to avoid meeting force with force. "Meet force with gentleness", he would say; "yield and redirect"; "attack and reverse when you feel their strength"; "turn their strength against them". Thus, physical pliability speaks to the ability to play loose and relaxed, and to initiate, yield or redirect as the situation demands.

In summary, we see ju as applying to the concepts of:

(i) Psychological Flexibility
(ii) Strategic Flexibility
(iii) Technique Efficiency
(iv) Physical Pliability

When employed in combination these four principles enable tori to reach a high state of mind-body unity and it is this state that best exemplifies the true meaning and application of ju.


Cunningham, S., Personal communication to L. Yiannakis

Draeger, D., Modern Bujutsu & Budo, Weatherhill, Inc., New York, 1997

Skoss, M., "Tenjin Shinyo-ryu Jujutsu", in Koryu Bujutsu, Diane Skoss, ed.,

Koryu Books, New Jersey, 1997

For comments, feedback or just plain criticism, you can reach me at:

Andrew Yiannakis, Ph.D.
Founder, Wa Shin Ryu Jujutsu
6th Dan, USJA Jujutsu
5th Dan, USJA Judo)

Linda Yiannakis, M.S.
4th Dan Judo (USJJF)
4th Dan Jujutsu (USJJF)

Research Professor, University of New Mexico
Copyright (C) 1995, 2000, 2009 by Andrew Yiannakis, Ph.D.
V5.4, 11-20-2009